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Planes: Fire & Rescue

July 23, 2014
Planes: Fire & Rescue

I really didn’t expect much going into Disney’s Planes: Fire & Rescue. I really hated last year’s first installment of the Planes spinoff from the Cars franchise, and this movie looked like a country-twanging cross between that one and Always, also known as the first evidence that Steven Spielberg just does not do sentimentality well.

And yet, where Planes was a corny rehash of the old follow-your-dreams story, Fire & Rescue is something else entirely. Planes is all puns and pandering; Fire & Rescue has real emotional stakes, and it earns them. I think it comes down to a principle outlined by Film Crit HULK in his massive James Bond discussion: Planes is about what we want; Fire & Rescue is about what we need.

It feels really good to hear that we should follow our dreams and fly off victorious into the sunset. I understand that Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) was miserable in his job and is happier as a racer, and I’m not saying that he’s wrong to have chased his passion. The problem was that the story is just so boring and old by now, and Planes had nothing interesting to offer to anyone over ten years old. Sure, it’s a kids’ movie, but that doesn’t mean it has to be stupid.

And I think director Roberts Gannaway knows that. After a long run of Disney-channel television and direct-to-video Disney spinoffs, he gets his first crack at a feature, with a story credit alongside Planes screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard. The first great choice is to take a little of the wind out from under Dusty’s wing with a failing gearbox that’s long since out of production and not easily replaced. Then an accident starts a fire at the Propwash Junction, and the aging firetruck (Hal Holbrook) can’t really handle it alone. The airstrip will be closed down without another firefighter.

This is the first key turn: Dusty feels like he’s nothing without racing, but he could have a second life as a single-engine air tanker. Following dreams is great, but not everyone will get there. More important than setting your sights high is knowing that you’re not a failure if you don’t get there, and you can still succeed and be fulfilled in other ways. The movie doubles down on this: racing is an entirely ego-driven field, devoted to personal glory; firefighting is about service to others.

Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), the helicopter leader of the Fire & Rescue squad at Piston Peak National Park where Dusty trains reinforces this point. He used to be a TV star — on CHoPs, with co-star Nick “Loop’n” Lopez (Erik Estrada) — but now saves people for real. The whole crew are on their second careers, and as mismatched a bunch as they can seem they’re all business when a fire breaks out. Their biggest obstacle the team faces seems to be the ego-driven park superintendant Cad Spinner (John Michael Higgins).

But that’s not the biggest obstacle for Dusty; he’s still got that wonky gearbox, and he doesn’t dare redline his engine without risking a crash. And what with all the admiration he gets for having been a racer, he doesn’t tell anyone about his problem. For all his modest words about his crew at the beginning, he isn’t really good at working as part of a team. He ignores orders, acts superior, and refuses support.

Planes was all about Dusty chasing after the life that he wanted, feeding his ego and proving he can succeed. Fire & Rescue is about Dusty learning to deal with disappointment, to serve something larger than himself, and to ask for help. All in all, I’d say that’s a story kids need to hear more than the first one.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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